Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Snoop Dogg, Isla Fisher, Stefanie LaVie Owen, Martin Lawrence, Zac Efron, Jonah Hill
Director: Harmony Korine
Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Florida Man gets the ultimate treatment in Harmony Korine’s The Beach Bum, which uses the Sunshine State as the geographical nexus where privilege, poverty, and hedonism collide. If 2013’s Spring Breakers was a self-aware snapshot of millennial debauchery, then The Beach Bum is what occurs when boomers’ and Gen Xers’ slide completely off the grid; powered by privilege and a mixture of booze and weed haze.
When we first meet Moondog (Matthew McConaughey), he’s stumbling around Key West in a state of permafried contentment, living off his wife Minnie’s (Isla Fisher) money while moving from one hedonistic party to the next. He’s a former critically acclaimed poet who is supposedly working on his next great work, but mostly just lives the good life as a burnout drifter. McConaughey leans into self-parody by fully committing to the attributes which have made him (despite Oscar-winning work in “serious” films), a parody of himself. Moondog is the slack-jawed, off his rocker version of the screen persona which began with the stoner doofus from Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. In The Beach Bum, McConaughey has come full circle clad in a half-buttoned canary yellow shirt and oversized glasses, and it’s a riotously freewheeling performance for the ages.
Once Moondog arrives in Miami for his daughter Heather’s (Stefanie LaVie Owen) wedding, the film becomes a tender picture of an odd marriage. Though both he and Minnie sleep around, there’s a real bond between them (aided by all manner of substance abuse), and some of the film’s most affecting scenes are between these two lovebirds. However, this is cut short by Minnie’s sudden death; leading to Moondog’s realization that he must finish his batch of poems in order to claim his half of her will. From here, The Beach Bum veers into a series of colorful vignettes involving kooky Florida characters while Moondog embarks upon his episodic quest.
Korine as always been drawn to outsiders, and his subjects are often disabled or disturbed individuals caught on the fringes of society. In many respects, The Beach Bum is his most accessible film yet; elliptical and meandering, but also less purposefully alienating. There are plenty of problematic elements here (women are more or less treated as sexual objects, for starters), but Korine’s undeniable affection for his characters; including Zac Efron’s pyromaniac son of a pastor and Martin Lawrence’s dolphin tour guide, keep the film brisling with a weirdo energy. Unlike older films like Gummo, Julien Donkey Boy, and the trollish Trash Humpers, The Beach Bum maintains a hippy euphoria throughout; exemplifying Moondog’s attitude of just having fun until it all comes crashing down. Even the spectator of his wife’s death never turns into a sentimental device. There’s no attempt to redeem his irresponsible behavior or make his journey into some kind of mawkish therapy session about overcoming grief. In fact, a brief stint inside a rehab facility concludes with a scene where he and Effron’s pyro injure and rob a senior citizen.
Is Moondog a good poet? In a traditional sense, probably not. Is he actually a genius, as so many Floridans claim? Maybe, but that’s not really important. What matters here is Korine’s refusal to offer easy tropes found in so many films about troubled geniuses who must rediscover their creative mojo. When Moondog's best friend Lingerie (Snoop Dogg) gives him a primo form of weed, he goes off on a binder that also includes pounding away on a vintage typewriter. Therefore, the excesses of creativity are found in the total loss of control that comes when someone knows they are well past their peak.
Moondog’s self-awareness is never really made clear. He’s so lost in the fumes of his carefree existence that bothering with his mortality is never truly an issue. Certainly, this is easier when such privilege is afforded, but Korine’s strangely touching film somehow transcends its trashy appearance as a bong-ripped wank. There’s a tinge of melancholy to the sight of Moondog, with his hyena laugh and red sequinned bikini top, just thinking that the world is conspiring to make him happy. In a bizarre way, The Beach Bum is the Florida movie the rest of the country needs right now; if only to bask in Moondog’s Zen-like penis poetry and the bohemian sounds of Jimmy Buffet. Alright, alright, alright.